There was a time when being called a gossip was something of an insult, an indication that a person was not to be trusted with private information and would turn even the most insignificant matter into something scandalous. Both General John Allen and actor Alec Baldwin have become victims recently (though deserving of far different levels of sympathy). And Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel has suffered the most—and over a manufactured rumor that started on the flimsiest of premises.
Allen, who was in line to serve as the supreme allied commander in Europe, has announced he will resign from the military. Allen said it is because he needs to take care of his ailing wife, which is admirable and understandable. But it is hard to imagine that his decision was not influenced, at least in part, by the absurd, media-created "scandal" over E-mails he sent to Tampa hostess Jill Kelley. Another stellar general, David Petraeus, was forced to resign after it was disclosed he had been having an affair with his biographer, and Allen's E-mails to a woman remotely linked to the episode became an issue as well. An investigation cleared Allen, who apparently referred to Kelley as "sweetheart" in E-mails (this is something to be ashamed of? It's sweet.). But surely, those electronic exchanges would have been paid a ridiculous amount of attention in congressional confirmation hearings. Congress, mind you, has not been able to find the time or exert the effort to avoid a looming fiscal crisis, but it steps up to the plate when there's an opportunity to smear any nominee put forth by the president.
Hagel, meanwhile, found himself the target of rumors that he had given a speech to the improbably-named "Friends of Hamas." This wasn't even a deliberate smear attempt; this occurred when a Daily News reporter (who tells his story here) called a congressional aide, seeking information on Hagel's background, asked whether Hagel had spoken before any controversial groups. He threw out the name "Friends of Hamas" because it was so over-the-top ridiculous—and he was just using it as an example of something that would indeed be legitimately controversial. Of course, no so speech happened, and it appears that no such group even exists. But the conservative website Breitbart.com raised the question—spurred, it appears, but some telephone-game rumor about Hagel having given such a speech.
Then there's Baldwin, who, it's true, is not known for his politesse. Baldwin was out walking in New York the other day—the nerve!—when he was approached by a New York Post reporter and photographer, who then asked Baldwin about a lawsuit pending against his yoga-instructor wife. Ambushing interview subjects is sometimes necessary, for example, when the subject is the target of a criminal corruption probe or war crimes. But seriously? Some suit about yoga injuries, and against his wife?
What happened next has not been established. The Post team says Baldwin verbally abused them, calling the African-American photographer a "coon," a "crackhead" and a "drug-dealer." The alleged racial epithet is appalling, but the other names are merely unkind. But Fox News reports that police are investigating whether the incident is a hate crime. A hate crime? Only one of the terms allegedly employed is racially-tinged (unless one accepts the premise that only African-Americans are drug users and dealers, which is itself racist). And it's an unacceptable and hateful word to use. But hate crimes statutes were meant to increase penalties for other crimes that are bias-motivated, such as the case of Matthew Shepard, who was tortured and murdered because he was gay. To put the street altercation between the newspaper employees and the actor on the same level is an insult to Shepard's memory and to the dangers faced by other genuine victims of hate crimes.
Baldwin's mistake was not just (if he indeed did) using a racial epithet. It's the fact that he did not employ other, more relevant and accurate terms to describe people who harass him on the street over some insignificant matter. Bottom-feeder, maybe. Or paparazzi sleaze. The people who provoked him on the street did so to get a reaction, and they got one. It was an embarrassing episode for all involved, and—like the Allen case—driven by a thirst for gossip.